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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Exceeding expectations, the Santa Clara University women's basketball team finished the 2010-11 season with a winning record against West Coast Conference teams on its home floor and tied for fourth in the league standings.
Led by senior star Lena Gipson, junior point guard Alyssa Shoji and a collection of talented young guards, the Broncos rebounded nicely from a slow start, winning six of eight games midway through the year, en route to an 11-win season.
"Confidence, that was the key to turning our season around," said third year head coach Jennifer Mountain, who never doubted her team was among the league's top four, despite its struggles through the first eight non-conference games. "I felt we learned that sharing the ball and defending will win us games. Our future is bright; we gained a lot of confidence in ourselves and realized we belong and that we can compete."
Gipson fueled the turnaround mid-December, scoring the go-ahead basket in the closing moments in a victory over Pacific, part of an amazing 22-rebound performance, one shy of an all-time school record. Gipson led the WCC in rebounding the entire year and finished the season ranked No. 8 among all NCAA players.
"I thought Lena had a tremendous senior season," said Mountain, who will see all three of her final-year players, Gipson, Kathy Willinsky and Becky Goll graduate this summer. "Kathy was a pleasant surprise for us, starting and producing on both ends of the floor. We will definitely have a void to fill with our seniors graduating, especially Lena, who is one of the greatest to ever play here at Santa Clara."
Gipson gave the Broncos a double-double (points-rebounds) nearly every night. But it was the guard play of Shoji, Meagan Fulps and true freshman Ricki Radanovich, fueling a season-best four-game win streak Dec. 30 through Jan. 13. Shoji and Fulps combined for 41 points during an overtime victory over eventual WNIT qualifier Cal Poly and Radanovich scored a season-high 19 in a road win over Bay Area rival San Jose State.
"Our guard spots return a lot of experience and talent," said Mountain, looking ahead to next season. Nobody in the league played more minutes per game than Shoji. She also ranked among the WCC leaders in 3s made (64) and assists per game (3.7). Fulps averaged double-figures in scoring for the second-straight year and was selected as an All-WCC Honorable Mention.
Radanovich, a former prep star at Carondelet High School in the East Bay, started in 26 of the team's 30 games and made 54 three-pointers. Like Fulps a year ago, Radanovich was named to the WCC All-Freshman team.
Ten of Santa Clara's 13 available players were underclassmen. Sophomore guards Ashley Armstrong and Telisha Anderson started at times and made significant contributions, as did sophomore transfer Lindsay Leo. True freshmen Iman Scott and Arteivia Lilomaiava made their collegiate debuts after outstanding prep careers at Bay Area high schools.
"(The season) is a marathon, not a sprint, and I really felt we kept them confident in what they were capable of doing," said Mountain about developing and improving the mindset of her players. "Believing in each other and themselves and getting a few wins under their belt was huge for our turnaround."
Conference wins over San Francisco and San Diego got the Broncos off to a 2-0 start in league play. Two more WCC victories, including a 77-73 comeback win over Loyola Marymount on January 29, moved Santa Clara into the top half of the league standings by early February.
Gipson was terrific down the stretch, earning WCC Player of the Month honors for her play in February, averaging 19.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in the seven games leading up to the WCC tournament. Gipson, Willinsky and Goll celebrated 'Senior Night' at the Leavey Center by routing Portland 77-55 on February 19. It was a great way to close the regular season at home, where the Broncos went 4-3 against WCC opponents and 6-6 overall.
"I was really happy for our seniors," said Mountain after that victory against Portland. "It was a great team effort, with four players in double-figures. We had good inside-outside presence; we attacked the rim. We did a little bit of everything and did it well."
Fulps and Radanovich each scored 19 points in that home finale and Shoji added 11. Shoji finished the season by posting back-to-back 18-point games in the conference tournament, leading the Broncos to an opening-round victory over USF.
After an 0-8 start, Santa Clara was 11-19 by the end of the season, 6-8 against the WCC.
"We are going to need other players to step up (next season)," said Mountain, who expects continuous improvement from all the returners during the spring and summer, hoping each player can find ways to enhance their individual games.
The Broncos should also benefit from the addition of an incoming recruiting class ranked No. 56 nationally by ESPN. Local stars Nici Gilday (San Jose, Calif./Presentation) and Vanessa Leo (San Jose, Calif./Archbishop Mitty), along with Tyler Woods (Corona, Calif./Centennial) and Colleen Rooney (Centennial, Colo./Regis Jesuit) have committed to SCU and will play for the Broncos in 2011-12.
"They each bring a different aspect to our team," says Mountain. "Each piece is important and will allow us continue to grow and expand in what we want to do."
"We have a big spring and summer ahead of us and we have challenges that I look forward to taking head on. We've had a taste of where we want to be and I expect great things from this team next year."